The heady world of haute couture, whose roots can be traced back to 19th century France, has long been governed by a strict code of standards, making it a herculean feat for fashion designers to gain entry into its gilded halls of exclusivity. In the early aughts, however, a stream of unconventional talent marched boldly through its front doors and straight into fashion history; it was a compelling era in high fashion not seen since the legendary feuds of Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli. This year’s Tribeca Film Festival slate included numerous documentaries about the rarified world of high fashion.
In the electrifying documentary McQueen, directors Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui cast an affecting light on the dramatic rise and heartbreaking demise of British designer Lee Alexander McQueen, whose life as a young hand in the dusty ateliers of Savile Row would pave the way to a glimmering coup as head creative for the house of Givenchy. Through a series of fascinating interviews with family and colleagues — not to mention jaw-dropping footage of his haunting runway looks — a wildly ambitious and darkly conflicted McQueen rolls slowly into focus, offering insight into a man whose grapple with past and imminent demons were exorcised each collection season on the high stakes catwalk.
In stark contrast, New Zealand filmmaker Pietra Brettkelly documents the steely optimism of Chinese designer Guo Pei and her pursuit of a highly coveted membership in the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in the exquisitely shot Yellow is Forbidden. With cinematic close-ups of the couturier’s painstaking embroidery work and her flawlessly executed fashion show in Paris’s historic Conciergerie, one gets the clear sense that Pei’s brilliant dedication to an endangered craft and grounded sense of cultural identity will ensure her place in the prestigious vaults of high fashion.
Tribeca’s spotlight on the world of couture came to a climactic finale with the New York premiere of director Kate Novack’s The Gospel According to Andre, a touchingly candid peek into the life and drive of one of high fashion’s most prominent torchbearers, Andre Leon Talley. Using succinct and poetic narration, viewers are drawn into Talley’s recounting of the women who nurtured his identity and career — from his beloved caretaker and grandmother, Bennie Francis Davis, to the endearing mentorship of legendary Vogue magazine editors Diana Vreeland and Anna Wintour. With straight up vulnerability that belies his stalwart demeanor and wicked sense of humor, Talley reminds us that just below the surface of fashion’s glamour and glitterati lay a rigid and unforgiving industry that one must navigate through with constant resolve (“It takes a lot of courage to get up and to be me. And I think it takes a lot of courage to even get up and face the world because the standards of the world aren’t always necessarily my standards”).